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Armed Forces (Recruitment and Retention)

Volume 479: debated on Monday 21 July 2008

6. What recent representations he has received on levels of recruitment and retention in the armed forces. (219812)

The Ministry of Defence receives many representations from Members of this House and elsewhere on the important subjects of recruitment, retention and morale in the armed forces. Last week we published the service personnel Command Paper, which is an unprecedented attempt to remove the disadvantage associated with service life and complements a raft of previous initiatives, such as enhancements to the deployed welfare package, and retention and commitment bonuses.

The Minister will recognise that the morale, professionalism and bravery of our armed forces have been built up over generations. I welcome the fact that the Government, as the custodian of that inheritance, have proposed the measures in the Command Paper, which will go some way in helping to address morale. Does he recognise that the crucial thing that the Government must confront is the overstretch of our armed forces? To that end, when will he realise that the forces need to be withdrawn from Iraq and that their efforts need to be concentrated in Afghanistan, where there remains a major job to do?

We recognise that problem and the impact of service life on family life and harmony, and attempts to ensure that we stay within harmony guidelines are at the forefront for all of the services all of the time. We will, as the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have said repeatedly, leave Iraq when the conditions are right, when the job is done, and when Iraqi security forces are capable of taking over and protecting the democratic Government of Iraq. Hopefully, that will be sooner rather than later, but it has to be conditions-based, not based on some artificial timeline that the Liberal Democrats keep asking for.

I welcome the Command Paper, which I believe will make some changes, but is the Minister aware that at any one time there are between 3,000 and 4,000 people living in the Vale of York who work on the four military bases? One issue that the Command Paper does not deal with, concerning not just those in the military schools on the bases but those who go into normal education, is that it takes three to six months for the children of servicemen and women to settle in, which may be reflected in poorer results, both for them and for the school, and lead some servicemen and women to consider their long-term future with the Army? Will he please review that position now?

There is a clear commitment in the Command Paper to look at the disadvantage in terms of school placements that is sometimes caused to the armed forces by the way in which we oblige them to work. We will work with the adjudicator and the admissions code to identify any disadvantage and to deal with it. I agree that it is essential that we try to remove those annoyances, which is why the commitment is in the Command Paper. I will point out the chapter to the hon. Lady if she wishes after questions.

My right hon. Friend will know that the Defence Committee has just concluded a report on retention and recruitment in Her Majesty’s armed forces, and we have all been impressed by the opportunities in jobs, education and training that all three services give young men and women. In the light of that, does he agree that former senior members of the armed forces should comment on current situations rather than on some of the historical nonsense that we have heard over the past few days?

My hon. Friend points out a problem, which is that people talk from their own experiences, which are not necessarily up to date, about force protection as provided in the operational theatre, the welfare package or other packages and measures that we have tried to introduce to assist our armed forces. One would hope that they made themselves aware of recent developments before they comment on them.

My right hon. Friend must be aware that the big issue with recruitment is that we can do better if we have more regiments based in the north-west instead of reducing them, and that the best way of ensuring better retention is to stop the revolving door of going out to theatre, coming back and going straight back out. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we could extend the period in the UK between periods in theatre, we would have better morale and retention?

My hon. Friend is an honorary colonel in a north-west-based regiment, so I can understand his bias in that regard. We have tried to address to the maximum degree possible the harmony situation, and the breaches of harmony guidelines in the Army have come down from 15 per cent. to around 12 per cent. in the last year, although we must continue those efforts. My hon. Friend is right that if we are sending people out to theatre more often than not, that will have a bearing on morale. However, he should bear it in mind that there are some in our armed forces who are more than happy to deploy as often as they do, and some would seek to deploy more often than we think is good for them.

One way in which the Government have tried to combat falling numbers in the Army is by increasing recruitment from Commonwealth countries. Unfortunately, the G1 or welfare package has not kept pace. For example, if a Fijian soldier is given compassionate leave he is returned only to the UK and is forced to fund his own travel back to Fiji, or, invariably, his own unit will have to do so. Will the Minister look at this area to ensure that there is equity across the board for all soldiers?

There are a number of measures in the Command Paper. I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the chapters to do with foreign and Commonwealth recruits to our armed forces and our attempts to deal with some of the disparities in treatment and to remove some of the botheration from them, their families and their partners. There are measures that we have taken. If he wants to take up other measures with me, I am prepared to look at them and to talk to him about them.

Many Members of this House have concerns and want improved recruitment and retention in the reserve forces and the Regular Army. I am delighted to say that the all-party group on reserve forces launched a report earlier today—I am pleased that the Minister responsible for reserve forces was able to receive that report. May we be assured that that report will be taken seriously? Some excellent work is going on, particularly in the Royal Naval Reserve air branch, and the report is—we hope—our contribution to the excellent Command Paper and to ensuring that we have the best recruitment and retention in our armed forces.

My hon. Friend will know that, separate from the Command Paper, we are part way through a review of the reserve forces. It is not expected to complete before the end of the year. Of course, her comments and those of the all-party group will be taken on board. I know that the group is being consulted throughout that process.

The Minister’s hon. and indeed gallant Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) is undoubtedly right that overstretch is primarily the greatest problem. What effect does the Minister think it has on the recruitment, retention and particularly morale of soldiers, sailors and airmen to know that, if the head of their service speaks out in favour of better conditions for them, he can forget about ever becoming Chief of the Defence Staff?

If the hon. Gentleman were speaking the truth, that would be a very serious matter indeed. I see no facts to support the allegations made by the hon. Gentleman. The Chief of the Defence Staff remains in post and will remain in post. He is doing a very good job and steering us through the difficult times that confront our armed forces at present.